creative arts

Play that Heals & Transforms

Recently, I finished a pottery course with my sister. She visited me from California, and I wanted to do something fun with her. And playing with clay did just that. Since this month’s lifeskill is Recreation/Entertainment, I not surprisingly started pondering play. But with the many horrific events this year so far in our nation, am I just ignoring the “reality” around me? Am I also feeling guilty when having fun and enjoying myself? Or is there something else going on here? Can play actually be cathartic, offering comfort that heals our hearts from fear and transforms our lives?

Animals & Us at Play

I realize, as mentioned in the previous article series, there is a time for everything. There is “. . . a season for every activity under the heavens. . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. . . a time to be silent and a time to speak. . . (Eccles 3).” So, after we have possibly given time to weep, mourn, and even be silent, we shouldn’t neglect our time to laugh and dance too. Possibly, we were meant to balance those challenging and painful seasons in life with integrated play.

dogWith my sister, along came her dog, Dusty. Watching him play was a delightful pastime. Play looks so much a natural part of being a dog. I figure if other animals, like apes and rats, know how to play and laugh too, shouldn’t it come more easily for us as human beings? According to Liz Langley, Do Animals Laugh? Tickle Experiments Suggest They Do (National Geographic, June 13, 2015), “Koko, the western lowland gorilla famous for her facility with sign language, ‘thinks that me being clumsy is funny,’ and will make laughing noises, says Penny Patterson, president of the California-based Gorilla Foundation.”

Even tickling rats elicits happy noises. “Jaak Panskepp, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Washington State University in Pullman, has found that tickled rats make happy noises. . . When scientists tickled the rodents, the animals made the same chirping sounds that they use during play. . . Some of the lab rats liked being tickled so much they followed the hand that tickled them.”

Maybe play and laughter are essential to prepare us for any surprising rough as well as rewarding roads ahead. Biologist and animal behavioral specialist Marc Bekoff, PhD, was credited with saying “play is training for the unexpected.” Psychiatrist and play researcher Stuart Brown, MD, and founder of National Institute for Play, offers us some insights. In his TED talk, Play is more than just fun (2008), considers play an essential part of our brain development and survival as human beings. He also believes “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.” Brown also says we are designed to play throughout our whole lifetime.

Designed for Play

How are we designed for play? Brown declares the word Neoteny should be our first and last name. Why? “Because neoteny means the retention of immature qualities into adulthood. And we are, by physical anthropologists, by many, many studies, the most neotenous, the most youthful, the most flexible, the most plastic of all creatures. And therefore, the most playful. And this gives us a leg up on adaptability.”

There was one challenge Brown gives us all. You want to transform your life, make play an integral part of your life. Brown adds that paying attention to your own passion and inner drive gives us the clue to the basis of our own play history. He encourages us to “. . . explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have, whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday or on a vacation. And begin to build . . . from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now.”

To make play an integral part of our lives doesn’t mean we compartmentalize work and play as separate entities. Brown explains play is “. . . hugely important in learning and crafting the brain. So it’s not just something you do in your spare time.” He then encourages us “. . . to engage not in the work-play differential — where you set aside time to play — but where your life becomes infused minute by minute, hour by hour, with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play. And I think you’ll have a better and more empowered life.”

Next week’s article will cover more about the benefits of play, laughter, and having fun within each day. In the meantime, what play are you up to right now, besides having fun reading this article!?